1. How I was exiled to Italy
She was lovely. I don’t know how I could have reacted any differently.
Her eyes were mahogany, alive and burning, her hair the color of whiskey, her skin so cinnamon, her breasts the size of cannon balls. I could only imagine how large and brown and hard her nipples would be.
She had a slight lilt of Mexican accent when she spoke English, and her Spanish was just as disarming, from Chihuahua, like my parents, and when she pronounced the name of her home state, it came out soft and silky, “Shee-wah-wah,” in that norteña accent that colors the best memories of my adolescence.
I’m not one of those old fools who thinks he has a chance with the young women who prey on gray-haired men in bars, exchanging flirtatious glances and an illusion of seduction for an outrageous bar tab. But I know how to have a conversation with a woman of any age, and I know when she is laying it out there, probing, trying to see if I want to take her to bed, not that she necessarily wants to end up there, but perhaps just to see if she could. And more than once, perhaps more than a hundred times, it has happened.
I’m sorry. I’m not proud of it, and as you will see shortly, it’s gotten me in trouble, but I was an old Don Juan, faded perhaps, a lapsed Catholic. Who would have thought I’d turn into a lovesick pilgrim and an accidental mystic? I love women, and they have told me many times that I was handsome, though I never really saw it. I detest the folds and wrinkles, the turkey wattle neck and age spots, the ever more prominent gray hairs that assault me when I look in the mirror.
Still, I had some principles — or I thought I did anyway. I never, ever slept with students, didn’t even flirt with them. I’d figured that one out 30-some years ago when I was still a graduate student teaching assistant. The women were only interested so long as you were their instructor, that is, their path to a better grade. Or maybe they were impressed by the position of authority or some such, but either way, by the next semester they would have moved on to someone else. It wasn’t worth the risk or the heartache.
But I had known this girl for years. She was at least 25, and she had been my student from the time she was 18 until she was 22. I felt I had mentored her—though secretly I always thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever known. I trusted her implicitly. And she hadn’t been my student for years. My intentions were pure, I swear.
She called me, asking to meet for a drink, said she wanted me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school, and I didn’t think a thing of it. We met at a popular wine bar with an outdoor patio and sat at the bar on a perfect spring evening in Phoenix, Arizona. But her grad-school plans seemed half baked, and she seemed to want to talk about other things, and of course I let her. As I said, I was very fond of her and happy to spend the time with her.
“Professor Bradomin,” she started, and I don’t even remember if she finished the question, because I stopped her.
“Call me Mark,” I said. “I’m not your professor anymore.”
She smiled and blushed alluringly. Her hand brushed my thigh. I noticed, but assumed it must have been an accident, until it happened again. And again. She was smirking, looking down, and I had the feeling that something was happening. She told me about her new boyfriend, about her uncertainty about moving in with him, because she felt she wanted to experiment with other people. I kept my mouth shut, because it would have been easy to assume too much.
She took the offensive. “Have you ever cheated on your wife, Professor, I mean, Mark?” she asked. The directness caught me off guard, and I almost coughed out the answer.
“It has happened,” I confessed. She smiled again. My face was pleasantly warm, the wine had taken down my guard, and I had that slow all-over tingle, thinking that maybe this night would have an unbelievably pleasant ending. Or that I had committed a horrible gaffe.
“I didn’t know you were a player,” she said.
“Well no,” I protested, suddenly uncomfortable.
She struck again before I regained composure.
“What would you do if I propositioned you?” she asked.
“I would be powerless,” I said, and it was the first completely honest thing I had said all evening.
Then, apparently satisfied with what she had learned, she suddenly noticed the time, and still smiling, kissed me on the cheek, hugged me warmly, grabbed her bag and started out. Heads turned at the bar, the men smiling knowingly, the women my age raising disapproving eyebrows.
“Call me,” I said.
I passed the week in a state of nervous exhaustion, waiting for the phone to ring, and of course it didn’t, which only convinced me that I’d let the wine and the girl get to me in ways I shouldn’t have. I was a fool. I had succumbed to fantasy. What would a lovely young woman want with an old man like me? The answer still astonishes me.
Friday afternoon, at last, the phone rang, but when I answered, it was not the girl, it was Teresa, the dean, my boss.
“Mark? I need to see you immediately.”
She sounded grim. We’d worked together for more than 20 years, and for several of those, while she was still a professor, we’d been lovers, but the affair had worked its way though without drama or rancor. She’d been my boss for only six months or so.
When I knocked at her office door, she was on the phone, and she waved me in and signaled for me to close the door.
“He’s here now,” she said to someone on the other end of the line, then hung up and exhaled purposefully. I sat waiting, confused. She plopped a newspaper down on the desk between us without a word. It was an independent student publication called The Bomb Dropper, and there on the cover was my photograph under the headline “Player Professor.”
“Popular Spanish literature professor Marcos Bradomin admits that he cheats on his wife and finds himself powerless before his female students,” it began. I recoiled first at the bad prose, then realized I was finished. It went on to detail the supposed affairs I’d had with students in the past—lies and rumors all of it, though I had been falsely linked to students over the years. Among those I was rumored to have abused was a student who said I gave her a bad grade after I came on to her. That accusation made my face pucker; she’d gotten a bad grade because she didn’t do the work and then had tried to flirt her way into at least a B, but I would have nothing of it. Besides, she repulsed me.
But I was guilty on some other counts with women who were not my students: the article mentioned Teresa the dean, which I’m sure sealed my fate. There was a waitress who’d once asked me to come home with her and then cried all during sex because she had just broken up with her boyfriend.
Then there were several women I’d never heard of, and the whole narrative was amateurishly tied together with snippets of my conversation with my lovely student, which she had obviously taped.
“This is mostly crap,” I said, trying to keep down the lump in my stomach and mustering all the indignation I could find.
“Maybe,” Teresa said. “But I know you Mark, all too well, and I can’t take chances.”
It took a moment to sink in that since her name was mentioned in the story as well, that I would be taking a hit for her, too. I looked over the story again, reading about how I had betrayed my principles, my students, my… wait, just who had betrayed whom here? But it didn’t matter. I was finished.
“How soon do you want me to resign?” I asked.
By the time I had cleaned out my office, the story had been on the five o’clock news. The university had put out a release stating that Lothario behavior would not be tolerated on campus. And every TV channel in town seemed to be running a special report about people in positions of influence who pressured women into relationships under threat of their careers. I had never pressured a woman for sex in my life. I had always let them come to me. And though I have never understood it, they did come.
My wife was waiting for me in the kitchen of our house.
“You slept with Teresa,” she screamed. I wanted to answer that I didn’t remember the last time she and I had slept together, but I kept quiet.
“You pig,” she screamed.
I thought about how when a Mexican woman calls you cochino, which means “pig,” it’s almost flirtatious. But when an Anglo woman like my ex-wife calls you a pig, it’s over. I was out of the house that very evening, and that was that.
The divorce papers were served within days. Whatever! The house sold at a major loss. Again: Whatever! I had cash in my pocket and nowhere to go, until I thought of Paola, another former lover from years back.
And having said that, I’m embarrassed, because it’s starting to sound as if I’ve bedded every woman I ever knew. Paola was a friend from my school days. After I got my master’s degree, I spent a semester in England, studying at Oxford. Paola was there working on a master’s degree in English and second-language teaching techniques. She was blonde, in a very Italian way, and she liked to have sex so often that I sometimes would hide from her. Once I even had to climb out a window while she slept to escape. But she’d ferret me out after class and lead me back to her room, hold me hostage — and Italians are very good at taking hostages — to have her way with me again and again. We made love in English and in Italian and then English and Italian again. I lost 15 pounds that semester, and then, when we both went home — me to Arizona and she to Città di Castello in Umbria — we kept in touch for six or seven months. But then we found other things to occupy our time, like degrees and jobs and spouses.
I had last run into Paola about a year before the disaster, at a language-instruction conference in Zurich, where I was giving a paper. She leapt at me when she saw me. At first I thought it must have been my birthday when an attractive 40-something blonde with an Italian accent threw her arms around my neck and jumped into my arms, wrapping her legs around me. But I knew the kiss, the smell, the very Paola-ness of her. We tried hard to act like adults as we shared a bottle of wine in a hotel bar.
“How are you?” I asked, an obvious question.
“I’m older,” she said. “Come tu, like you.” I felt a bit sad at the reminder, especially when sitting across from a memory of younger and freer times.
“My teets aren’t as good as they used to be.”
“Oh really?” I asked. “How exactly are they?”
“They are, how do you say, longer?”
“Well, no, that’s not how you say, but I think I know what you mean.” I took a sip of wine and looked away. “However, I’ll need proof before I believe it,” I said, deadpan.
Paola smirked and leaned across the table. She grabbed my hand. “Dai!” she said, “Let’s go.”
I had a single room, and she was sharing with her business partner at her language school in Città di Castello, so we went to my room.
“Do we need a condom?” I asked, trying to be responsible.
“Do you think I am going to get pregnant at our age?” she said. There was an appealing logic to it, that is, if I had to admit I was getting old.
We spent most of the evening making love, wrestling and grappling in bed, like old times. I made it to the session I was presenting, but that was it. The rest of the trip I spent with Paola, letting myself be taken hostage again and again. And then the trip was over. But she had planted an idea that came to me in my hour of disgrace.
“Come to Italy and work for me,” she said. “You can teach English and Spanish. I will pay you well and fuck you even better.”
At the time, I thought it would never happen. But that was then. In my new desperate state, I called Paola. She was surprised to hear from me, surprised that I would take her up on her offer, and when I told her what had happened, she laughed long and loud. Then she asked, “How soon can you be here?”